Perhaps the most significant insight that governments can take from the global pandemic is that collaboration works, particularly when focused on the needs of citizen customers. Around the country, departmental boundaries have eroded, as organisations have been forced to work together, led by cross-governmental taskforces. Data has been shared to provide services to those that need them.
The urgency of the COVID-19 response has turned the vision of an optimistic and progressive civil service into a reality by breaking down the walls within government departments, between departments and between departments and citizens.
In the past, barriers to this type of connected and joined-up arrangements had developed over many years and had become ingrained in the culture of government. Information governance had been dominated by lore over law, which blocked data from being shared with people who needed it, even within organisations. Fiefdoms and budgets were also dominant factors in the way decisions were made, which risked making services inefficient and ineffective. COVID-19 has blown a great deal of this behaviour away.
In Australia, there has been unprecedented reform to the national decision-making process through the abolition and replacement of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG).1 The body, comprised of states, territories and the federal government, had previously been criticised for its slow approach to national policy reform. The new ‘National Cabinet’ process that replaced COAG was established in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic. It features significantly streamlined processes and decision-making structures.
Government in the post-pandemic new reality also must focus on the needs of citizens as customers and put them at the center of how the public sector operates. For instance, rather than fall back on old data protocols, meet the customer where they are. If they are happy for their records to be shared to make their lives easier, do it. Many citizens overestimate how well connected governments are and there is an opportunity for the public sector to catch up with these expectations. Efficiency will be a key driver in the new reality as governments address their debt burden and organisations cannot continue with back office functions and systems that are not aligned with their purpose and the needs of their customers.
One of the best examples of this is analytics. Governments gather and process huge amounts of data but are often not able to develop insights from this information to inform their strategies. If data is managed as an asset, public-sector organisations can improve their efficiency and the effectiveness of their services. At its worst, some governments are still reliant on paper systems that are the enemy of insight. Even more advanced organisations struggle to rapidly gather, process, integrate and present data from across their organisations in a way that drives actions, whether they be at the policy or service level.
The technology that underpins much of government working can also prevent government from operating in a connected and modern way. Replacing old, on premise backbone systems with a common platform across government is a big step towards efficient and integrated working.
The response to COVID-19 has been a hotbed of innovation, as clever people devise ways to adapt to new working conditions. Departments should ensure that there is a way to embed innovation across their organisation through information-sharing and creating a culture that embraces change. That culture should also extend to challenging bigger elements: traditional methods of cost-benefit analysis, policy consultation and evaluation should be tested to see whether they are aligned with societal issues and whether they promote intended outcomes.
Connecting government organisations around citizen customers and their outcomes will take time but COVID-19 has demonstrated the need to do so and that imperative will grow as governments are forced to do more with fewer resources.